There are several women across India in marital disputes with their NRI husbands. While the men often find legal loopholes to end the marriage, the women are left in the lurch.

Issues faced by these women range from being abandoned in India after a brief period of marriage to being taken abroad where they are then subjected to physical and mental abuse to dowry harassmentImage for representation
Delve NRI Cell Thursday, October 01, 2020 - 19:38

Saritha* last saw her daughter in 2018 when she was leaving the United States to return to India after the relationship with her husband soured. “I hoped things will get better over time and we will be back together after a break, but my husband filed for a divorce in the US. It has been two years since I last saw my daughter,” says the 32-year-old resident of Miryalaguda of Nalgonda district in Telangana, who was married to a US citizen of Indian origin. 

Saritha, as of August this year, is waiting for the COVID-19 pandemic to blow over to finally visit the US to begin the lengthy battle for custody of her daughter. It was not easy to get the US visa for this purpose. Saritha was lost at first — searching the internet, knocking on doors of friends to find a solution.

“I was clueless on how to proceed with my case. I would not have had this ray of hope of meeting my daughter again, if not for assistance from the NRI Women Safety Cell,” says Saritha who is all praise for the Telangana police’s initiative. “After I filed a formal complaint with the NRI Cell last year, they helped me get through the US embassy to procure a tourist visa to fight my case,” she adds. 

There are several women across India in marital disputes with their Non-resident Indian (NRI) husbands. Issues faced by these women range from being abandoned in India after a brief period of marriage to being taken abroad where they are then subjected to physical and mental abuse to dowry harassment. They are also often deceived upon reaching the foreign country or given triple talaq over the phone or finding out that the husband has another family in the foreign country. Women have also reported being conned into marriage after being given false information about the NRI husband’s job or immigration status.

The NRI Women Safety Cell, launched by the Telangana police in July 2019, acts as a facilitator for these women, offering them legal assistance. 

Swati Lakra, Additional Director General of Police (Women Safety Wing), calls it a unique initiative by the Telangana police to address the concerns of women facing dowry harassment, domestic abuse and other cases involving NRI husbands. 

“There is no other dedicated Cell in other states to address the concerns of women with NRI husbands,” the senior police officer boasts. Kerala, Goa and Punjab are the states in India that have Departments or Commissions for NRI affairs; however, these commissions handle all issues pertaining to NRIs.

The formation of a dedicated NRI Women Safety Cell to address grievances of women with NRI husbands has been in the ambit of the National Women's Commission (NWC) since 2008, based on recommendations by a parliamentary committee. 

While all south Indian states have a wing where NRIs can approach to file a complaint on issues pertaining to property disputes, land encroachments, bringing a dead body back to India, etc, none have dedicated cells to handle issues faced by women. Many are clueless on how to proceed legally when their spouse is abroad. Not everyone is aware that NRI Cells also accept petitions pertaining to marital disputes, say those in the field assisting these women. 

For Saritha too, finding help was not easy at first. 

“I had scanned through the internet and social media, but found nothing that will help a person in my position,” she says. She was directed to the NRI Women Safety Cell by a friend who came across a social media post. Saritha has formally filed for divorce in India after her husband filed for the same in the US. However, filing for divorce in India did not help much, as her estranged husband never showed up for hearings. 

‘They never show up’

“There is a woman from Hyderabad who has been waiting 14 years for a divorce from her NRI husband,” says Mamatha Raghuveer, co-founder of Taruni, a non-profit that assists women obtain legal assistance. The non-profit played a key role in assisting the Telangana police set up the NRI Women’s Safety Cell. 

“The Indian judiciary grants divorce for a woman only if the husband produces himself before the court. But in several cases, NRI men obtain a divorce by sending the documents to a wrong address and claiming in court that the woman didn't show up as she is not interested in the marriage. The men get the divorce easily,” explains Mamatha.

For example, in the case of the aforementioned woman who has been waiting for a divorce for 14 years, the NRI husband sent her to India, moved countries along with his family and she eventually lost touch with them. 

“The court asks her to bring her husband to process the divorce. She doesn’t even have her husband's passport details to trace him — her life is in limbo,” says Mamatha, narrating the woman’s ordeal. The local police often do not know how to proceed with the investigation in such cases, she adds.

The only option before the women who need to bring their NRI husbands back to India is to take assistance from the local police to issue a Look Out Circular (LOC). The circular will serve to stop the NRI husband at the airport while leaving the country or get the Regional Passport Office to cancel the passport of the spouse in question

LOC and passport impounding

However, getting the LOC issued or passport impounded is no easy task. 

The NRI Women Safety Cell of the Telangana police have received 101 petitions over the past year. Due to the efforts involved, officials consider getting an LOC even in five of these cases, a success. 

“Officials with the Ministry of External Affairs get numerous requests for issuing LOCs. The issues concerning women take a back seat and are not a priority for them,” alleges Mamatha. 

Swati Lakra and her team work with MEA officials, the Regional Passport Officer and prosecutors to enable cases to reach trial phase. 

“We can, as a mediator, bring all these stakeholders to the table. We discuss each case and decide what needs to be done,” says the senior officer.    

In six of the cases handled by the Cell, the passports of the NRI-accused from Telangana were impounded. “But often, the NRI husbands approach a higher court and get the impound notice quashed citing human rights violation. Even the passport offices are unsure if they should impound the passport as they don't know the facts of the case,” says Mamatha. 

The data collected by the NRI Cell in Telangana shows there are about 600 active cases registered across the state against NRI spouses and relatives since state formation in 2014. About 450 LOCs have been initiated against NRI spouses since then.

The only other option

For women from other southern states, their grievances are to be registered with the Women Safety Wing of their respective states.

The Andhra Pradesh Non-Resident Telugu Society (APNRTS) takes care of all matters related to NRIs in the neighbouring state.

Venkat S Medapati, president of APNRTS, tells TNM that all cases pertaining to women are forwarded to the Crime Investigation Department (CID) in Andhra Pradesh. 

The AP CID have provided two numbers for NRIs with grievances to reach out wherein calls are attended by a police officer on duty who then forwards them to relevant officials. Officials in charge of the AP NRI Cell did not respond to questions from TNM.

In Kerala, the state government has set up NORKA (Non-Resident Keralites Affairs), a Department to address the grievances of Non-Resident Keralites. It is a one-stop Department for all issues related to Non-resident Keralites. “We do have a women’s NRI Cell within NORKA but it is a platform for blue-collar women workers, mostly women working as domestic help,” explains Ajith Kolassery, the Recruitment Manager with NORKA. The platform is designed for working women. “We need to look at how NRI women facing marital issues can be helped,” the official added.

Among the southern states, Kerala is the only one to have a dedicated NRI Commission headed by a retired High Court judge. “We hear the case, and based on the urgency and need, we send reports to the police, the Ministry of External Affairs, embassies and every other Department. But not everyone responds as they are not mandated to as per law. We have to personally follow up on the cases, only then something happens,” says Nizar H, former secretary of the NRI (Kerala) Commission. The commission accepts all kinds of cases related to NRIs — there is no dedicated wing to hear issues faced by women, he added. 

The new secretary of the NRI (Kerala) Commission, Anil, said, “The commission has not functioned since the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Kerala also has a police NRI wing. The Superintendent of Police for the NRI Cell, Abdul Rashi, says the police do not have a dedicated wing for NRI women, but have a Women’s Safety Wing where all women can approach to file complaints. “We forward all petitions to the local police and to the Women Safety Wing. There is no dedicated Cell like in Telangana. If the request comes to file for LOC or passport impounding, we assist. But not many petitions come our way — very few,” says the officer.

The Karnataka government's effort to assist Non-Resident Kannadigas appears a work in progress- the website for the NRI Resident Forum was last updated this January. The legal aid section promises to work with the Ministry of External Affairs and talks about providing legal aid to women but is yet to start functioning. The forum came into existence in 2014 and was functional until 2017. 

The contact section has land phone numbers to the Chief Minister's office and to the office of the Honorary Deputy Chairman, a post lying vacant since 2017. The land phone numbers were unresponsive, a few email ids are listed. The NRI cell also has a member secretary, whose calls went unanswered. 

Tamil Nadu has an NRI Grievances Petition Portal which comes under the Commissionerate of Revenue Administration and Disaster Management. The contact details provided on the state government’s website led to half-an-hour of being bounced across the Department’s switchboard. “We only look at property-related complaints from NRI,” an official on the other end of the line finally told TNM.

The TN government in an effort to reach out to the NRI community, set up the Commissoreate of Rehabilitation and Welfare of Non-Resident Tamils. The website was created to facilitate migrant workers hoping to leave or to return to Tamil Nadu in the aftermath of the COVID-19 related nationwide lockdown.

For women from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala, the best option to seek legal assistance with their cases is to approach the Women Safety Wing or dial the 1091 helpline.

The National Commission for Women (NCW) also has a portal dedicated to women who wish to register a petition against their NRI spouses. On average, the NCW receives 50 petitions from women across India on their online portal. 

“But most of these cases are from Punjab and Haryana as they have a strong NRI population — not much from the south,” says Praveen Singh, the counsellor who heads the NRI Cell for NCW.

* Name changed upon request.

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